This classification covers establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing office furniture made chiefly of wood, including benches, bookcases, cabinets, chairs, desks, filing boxes and cabinets, panel furniture systems, stools, tables, partitions, and modular furniture systems.
Wood Office Furniture Manufacturing
According to the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA), a leading trade group, product values for the office furniture industry as a whole totaled approximately $10.8 billion in 2006. This was the third consecutive year of increases for the industry, which had experienced a slump in the early 2000s. Yet it was still far from the industry high of $13.3 billion in 2000.
Wood products consistently comprise about one-quarter of total office furniture sales. In 2005 desks and tables made up one-fifth of the total office furniture products market, a percentage that had been relatively consistent for several years in a row. In 2005 the United States exported approximately $551.6 million in office furniture, with Canada receiving about half of those exports.
Western Michigan—most notably in and around the cities of Grand Rapids and Holland—was home to office furniture manufacturing giants Steelcase Inc. (whose product line focused on nonwood rather than wood furniture), Haworth Inc., and Herman Miller Inc., as well as a number of other firms. As a result, the area could boast that its facilities produced about 65 percent of all office furniture manufactured in North America. This dominance could be attributed to two factors: an abundant supply of good quality hardwood in Michigan forests during the industry's early years and the availability of highly skilled woodworkers.
When wood was still the material of choice for most manufacturers, stationery stores and office equipment dealers handled sales of office furniture. The concept of "office design" was unheard of. Companies purchased desks and other pieces as needed, setting them up in rows in big, open spaces, creating an office environment that very much resembled a classroom.
Later, as the demand for office furniture increased and the market became more specialized and sophisticated, the major manufacturers developed their own sales staffs and dealer networks to handle large-scale orders. In addition, the introduction of new products such as computer desks and "systems furniture" (consisting of panels and other pieces that could be easily moved and reconfigured to accommodate changing needs) generated a need for office designers. As a result, the bigger firms began to offer design assistance to customers who were eager to get the most out of their furniture purchases. Smaller companies that were unable to support their own sales and design staffs turned instead to manufacturers' representatives to provide the same services to customers.
In the 1990s, although a few manufacturers still sold directly to customers, most relied on other means of distribution. Distribution channels shifted over the past decade. According to a joint survey conducted by BIFMA and the Business Products Industry Association, nearly one-third of sales went through such channels as office products megadealers, superstores/warehouse clubs/other mass merchandisers, wholesalers, mail order, and the government. Superstores, warehouse clubs, and other mass merchandisers showed the strongest growth. In 1993 they represented 2.8 percent of total distribution; by 1996 they accounted for 6.3 percent of the total.
Office furniture manufacturers of all kinds showcased their newest products and services at a number of trade shows around the country, most notably the Neo Con World's Trade Fair. Held annually at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, it is billed as North America's largest commercial interiors exposition.
The wood office furniture industry first began to take shape in the late nineteenth century, a period of rapid industrial growth in the United States. This industrial growth—along with technical innovations such as the elevator, the typewriter, and the telephone—sparked a corresponding increase in the number of people working in offices. Manufacturers of residential furniture soon began to notice that more of their desks, tables, and bookcases were being put to use in a business setting. Some of them responded by designing and building pieces specifically suited to the needs of this new kind of employee, thus establishing office furniture as a separate segment of the overall furniture industry.
Wood dominated the market until the 1930s, when metal filing cabinets and desks became popular (and cheaper) substitutes for the old wooden models. The military's need for steel briefly interrupted this trend during World War II, but in the postwar years metal office furniture once again reasserted itself as a serious threat to wood. Both sides responded by launching aggressive marketing campaigns emphasizing the advantages of their respective products.
The rivalry between the two camps gradually eased, however, as wood office furniture manufacturers began to incorporate steel parts in their designs, and metal office furniture manufacturers began to feature wooden tops. By the early 1960s the distinctions between the two industries had blurred to the point where the wood furniture manufacturers dissolved the trade association they had originally established to distinguish themselves from metal office furniture manufacturers. In 1973 office furniture manufacturers of all types officially recognized their common interests and concerns by joining forces in a single trade organization, the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers...